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Neighborhood battles wethouse in Fargo
By Bob Reha
Minnesota Public Radio
April 10, 2002


Angry residents of a northside Fargo neighborhood oppose plans to convert an old warehouse into an apartment complex for homeless alcoholics. The neighborhood already has a homeless shelter, a detoxification center and a halfway house for released criminals. Those facilities don't allow residents to have alcohol. The new complex would be a "wethouse," allowing residents to drink. Supporters of the new facility say it could lead to more people getting effective treatment.

Opponents sign
Residents of Fargo who live near a proposed wethouse for homeless alcoholics oppose the facility. The neighborhood already has a homeless shelter, a detoxification center and a halfway house for released criminals.
(MPR Photo/Bob Reha)

A small white sign planted in the yard outside of Anita Cruz' house says it all.

"We don't want a drunk house in our neighborhood."

Her home sits across the street from the proposed facility.

"I think they're using our neighborhood as a sacrifice zone." says Cruz. She says the neighborhood already has its fair share of places for folks who are down and out.

"I've been flashed," she says. "It's scary. You've got to go to the other side of the street."

Cruz says she worries the new facility may bring more problems.

"(At) 8 o'clock in the morning the bar's open, and there's going to be this big rush of drunks down the street. I ain't going to be out there. Would you?"

What's being proposed across the street from Cruz' home is a "wethouse." Unlike all the other homeless shelters in the Fargo-Moorhead area, the new shelter would allow tenants to drink in their rooms. Cruz says that's a problem.

"I'm not against these people getting help," she says. "But I'm against putting it in a neighborhood where there are families and where there are children."

Keith Gilleshammer
Keith Gilleshammer, whose non-profit organization would operate the wethouse, says studies show such facilities reduce the number of people who need to go to emergency rooms or detoxification centers because of alcohol abuse.
(MPR Photo/Bob Reha)

Cruz has circulated petitions among her neighbors opposing the complex. All but one has signed the petition.

A non-profit organization called Centre, Inc., operates a halfway house and detox center in the neighborhood. It would be part of the group running the complex. Keith Gilleshammer, Centre, Inc.'s executive director, says he visited shelters in Minneapolis that allow residents to drink in their rooms, and came home convinced that wethouses work.

"Studies that were done about long-term supportive housing is that it reduces the...percentage of admits by 90 percent," he says.

Gilleshammer emphasizes these facilities do not claim they are curing alcoholism. What they are doing is reducing the number of people being admitted to detox centers and emergency rooms, or being thrown in jail.

He says the studies show chronic alcoholics stay in these shelters rather than living on the streets. The longer they stay, the better the odds they'll seek help.

Gilleshammer understands neighbors' concerns. He stresses this is not a party house, but more like hospice care for chronic alcoholics.

Proposed wethouse
This building is the proposed location for the new wethouse in Fargo, which would be a long-term care facility for homeless men with alcohol problems. They would be allowed to drink in their rooms, and that has caused controversy in the neighborhood.
(MPR Photo/Bob Reha)

"The definition of hospice is - it's a place to pass away gracefully. That's sort of the mission for this place," says Gilleshammer. "These people are so debilitated that this may be the last bed they're ever in. We're expecting that people will pass away here."

Wethouses have long been controversial. A proposal for a similar facility in downtown Duluth is also drawing opposition.

The Fargo project is being partially funded with government grants as an affordable housing project. Lynn Fundingsland, the executive director of the Fargo Housing Authority, says concerns over the project are understandable.

"It's normal for people to be wary of this new thing coming in," he says. "On the other hand, I've not yet had an after-the-fact complaint from any of these facilities. It comes down to if they're well-managed or not," says Fundingsland.

But neighbor Patty Loomis takes no comfort in such talk. She says allowing the facility in the neighborhood is plain wrong.

"I don't like the feeling I'm a sitting duck," says Loomis. "I don't want to be afraid any more. We're tired of it."

The Fargo Planning Commission approved the project Wednesday, but opponents say they will appeal the decision to the Fargo City Commission. They also say they may sue if the project gains final approval from the city.